“These movies….no one ever gave a shit about them in Italy – just a few bad reviews, stayed in theatres for two weeks, then disappeared…I watched House On The Edge of the Park again [recently] and I concluded that it was a good movie let down by too much emphasis on sadism, on the razor on the girl’s tits, that’s a bit too much. Apart from that, there’s a lot of tension…[and] my character was fantastic, the real victim…” (John Morghen, 2015)
“Cuts required to all sexual assault scenes to remove forcible stripping of women, inflammatory dialogue, the suggestion of Lisa enjoying rape, and the extended razor play with Cindy. These were on the grounds that the scenes both eroticised and endorsed sexual assault. The most pernicious scene is that in which the virginal Cindy is sexually assaulted – sexual tension is built up as razor is played over her body and her breasts. The scene is further eroticised by being intercut with an unlikely consensual sex scene between one of the attackers and one of the party. The effect of illicit pleasures sexualised is increased by the apparent youth of Cindy, full-frontal nudity, and lingering shots of her naked body being marked by the razor. This is a potent sexualisation of violence. … The often extended assault scenes seem to serve no purpose within the plot and instead seem clearly designed to titillate a largely male audience.” (from the BBFC’s original reassessment of House on the Edge of the Park, 2002)
In this enlightened age, we have become accustomed to the once-outlawed “video nasties” of old being freely available in the highest quality home video formats, uncut, uncensored, laden with collector-attracting extras and beautiful hand-drawn original covers…and in some cases (see Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination and Inseminoid) even adorned with a “15” rating that reflects just how embarrassingly dumb the “nasties” scandal was in the first place. There remain, of course, a minority of movies that are destined to be perpetually contentious, regardless of whatever apparent advances seem to have taken place in the field of allowing British adults the opportunity to decide for themselves whether simulated scenes of violence are offensive or not.
House On The Edge Of The Park immediately followed the enduringly upsetting Cannibal Holocaust in Ruggero Deodato’s filmography. Released in its native Italy in 1980, it was rejected outright for cinema classification in 1981 by the BBFC and in the glorious days that preceded the Video Recordings Act, enjoyed a (hitherto highly collectible) uncut UK VHS release in 1982 courtesy of the largely forgotten Skyline label. The following year, unfortunately yet inevitably (given its obvious associations with the even more contentious Last House On The Left, with which this often presumably became confused amongst the fuck-witted authorities), the movie was a lasting fixture of the DPA’s “Video Nasties” list.
It remained a hot potato in the UK, and its first entry into the shiny new world of DVD courtesy of
Vipco resulted in an extraordinarily emasculated 2002 release that lost 11 minutes 43 seconds (!) broadly and unhelpfully defined by the BBFC of the time as consisting of “several sequences of sexual violence, humiliating depiction of female nudity and gross violence”. Everything changed in 2009, however, when, thanks to the efforts of Shameless, the movie was revisited by a significantly less Fascist Board, who waived the vast majority of the earlier cuts, and even overturned its original demand of 1 minute and 20 seconds of cuts thanks to Shameless’ successful appeal of their decision to reduce the sex sequence between Alex (David Hess) and Lisa (Annie Belle), which exists in that
contentious BBFC netherworld between rape and consensual sex. Following the appeal, the movie enjoyed its most complete certified UK release to date in 2011, shorn of 42 seconds from a single scene, reducing, in the BBFC’s words, “scene of razor traced over naked body and then cutting naked female”.
Obviously inspired by the trend-setting, rabble-rousing Wes Craven classic of 1972, Deodato recruited the star of Last House On the Left, David Hess, for a suitably unforgiving and contentious follow-up to the controversy-magnet Cannibal Holocaust, though perhaps unsurprisingly given the brief time-span between the two movies, Holocaust’s unrelenting assault on the senses had a tendency to eclipse the extremely intense, yet comparatively well behaved home-invasion horrors of House On The Edge of the Park. In what appears to be a conscious bid to surpass the hard-hitting horrors of the 70’s that didn’t flinch from sexual violence and moral ambiguity, however, Deodato wastes no time in delivering the kind of queasy, vicarious “thrills” the audience had come to expect.
In the very first scene, Alex (Hess) runs a young woman off the road, whom he has followed home from the discotheque, proceeding to strip her, rape her and throttle her prior to dumping the body. All of this happens before the opening titles and, echoing the ironically beautiful central themes so memorably employed throughout Cannibal Holocaust, is set to a disarmingly sweet and pretty song composed by Riz Ortolani. Immediately, we realise that David Hess is adding another unnervingly credible thug to his resume.
“I got along famously with David Hess. He was so full of live, overwhelming at times. He was full of ideas, let’s change this, let’s change that…He added [the singing of] Little Miss Moffett, little things like that…He was constantly fighting with Deodato, even though Deodato adored him. He was very enthusiastic and helped me a lot ‘cos it was my first movie. He was an incredibly nice person and since then, up until he sadly passed away, we always had a great friendship….” (John Morghen, 2015)
Pissing on people and wielding a straight razor with the spiky attitude to match, Hess offers an even more amped-up, uncomfortable variation on Krug. In between rapes, he does mechanic duties with his good-natured, child-like, simple chum John Morghen, himself sporting a leather jacket and shades and keen to “boogie”, though written off a tad by Hess as “a little bent”. The two guys fix the car of a waistcoat-wearing, handsome rich dude (Christian Borromeo) and his classy wife Lisa (Annie Belle) and, as a thank you, get invited to one of their swanky parties. Much turn-of-the-decade disco-jiving ensues before everyone settles down to a poker game, where Hess is given the come-on by the thrill-seeking, prick-tease Lisa, Morghen is made to feel like an idiot and ultimately Hess’ temper flares up and he starts punching people…before much, much worse.
“Deodato is and was a brisk man, always agitated, doing a million things at a time…but always with a sense of humour – insulting and teasing at the same time. The crew adored him. [With House On The Edge of the Park] the whole thing was time, as we shot it in three weeks and it was running, running, running. I got along very well with him. [Umberto] Lenzi? Do I really have to talk about Lenzi?!” (John Morghen, 2015)
Deodato, established as a rabble-rouser intent on giving the audience a rough ride with his earlier work, here refuses to offer even the most obvious gratification available to the rape-revenge sub-genre. For starters, there are no true protagonists, no one to root for. The wealthy couple are immediately unsympathetic, and the wife’s attitude toward their guests is not even kind enough to be considered patronising: “You look like you should be in a cage” she observes, of Hess, before later dubbing him ‘King Kong’. Despite – or, rather, because of – this, she does not reject his advances, taking a shower in front of him so that Hess (and us) can get lingering looks at her naked boobs, bush and ass, prior to asking for a back rub…and then revealing it was just an elaborate tease and abandoning him. Ultimately, she goes along with intercourse with him after much prick-teasing, mostly so she can say “That was disgusting”. This was the ambiguous sex scene that troubled the BBFC so much on its initial classification via Vipco. John Morghen reflects on the sequence:
“There were no complaints – it was just her job. Closed sets? No. I wasn’t there when David shot his scene with Annie Belle. Actors generally aren’t very shy, we’re used to shared dressing rooms, being half naked all the time. I had to hide my dick all the time because censorship wasn’t allowing male genitalia on screen at that time. Lorraine De Selle [as Gloria] was a bit of a prude, she would have preferred her bush not to be seen. She tried when I was raping her to ask me to hide her with an arm or an elbow so as not to be fully seen, but Deodato started screaming. I did what we wanted. In the 70’s, people were very open about sex and nudity.” (John Morghen, 2015)
“Now we’re gonna have some fun with these cunts…” asserts Hess to the nervously giggling Morghen, who gets a choice of which bit of upper class pussy he wants first. Half an hour into the movie, David Hess has commanded both the party and the movie, and his wired, unpredictable energy is greatly unsettling to watch. Physically intimidating and uniquely convincing as a sexually aggressive thug, Hess is the only person who has ever brought this much menace to “Little Miss Muffet”.
Reflecting the enduring responses to Cannibal Holocaust, horror fandom has often struggled to fully defend the content of House On The Edge of the Park. The women are, without exception, stripped, most of them fully naked and some of them are explicitly abused, though there’s nothing in this context that could truly be considered erotic. Both Hess and Morghen are fully naked too, and no one in the movie comes off particularly well, male or female. The central female character, in fact, shows no fear, and refuses to be intimidated by a guy with a knife, of whom she (in her own words) only feels pity. It is Lisa who has the upper hand throughout the story and gets to put a bullet into Alex herself during the climax in which he takes a dog’s age to finally die. The movie is more of a misanthropic commentary on the rich and the poor in a totally fucked-up society, and it offers a long hard look at the inaction of ineffectual male characters who do nothing to stop women being maltreated. Just because Hess is a misogynist and the movie strips its women according to his actions, doesn’t mean to say that it, too, is misogynist and not worthy of closer, more complex study.
“[The nudity] did go with the plot. It was a way of titillating the audience. We had to hide our privates, but, as for the ladies…there was a certain insistence to make the audience happy.” (John Morghen, 2015)
The roughest sequence in the movie is the one scene that remains censored in the UK. A pretty young blonde named Cindy (Brigitte Petronio) happens to stop by the house, immediately clocking Hess as a stud (something of a leap here, and perhaps a key part of what makes the scene so objectionable to many) and, to the tune of Ortolani’s lovely theme, has her clothes cut off with Hess’ razor, who then caresses it over her nipples and body while singing the title song himself. All of this is intercut with a tender yet still queasy “love” scene between Morghen and Lorraine De Selle’s almost-sympathetic Gloria and it builds to one of the decade’s most harrowing moments of non-fatal violence as Alex (informing her, correctly, that “You’ll always remember Alex”) cuts her breasts, belly and legs with the razor while everyone else looks on. It somewhat prefigures a more graphically gruesome yet somehow less horrifying sequence in New York Ripper that, also, remains censored in the UK, even in these allegedly more liberated times.
“I was always called to be the weak, mentally challenged character, partly because they were lazy in Italy – you play a priest, you play ten priests. But also I was quite weak and neurotic myself, it was a quality I had inside.” (John Morghen, 2015)
As in Last House On The Left, Hess conveys humanity and conscience within his seemingly remorseless, brutish character: there’s a point in which he breaks down to the wounded Morghen (who is his conscience made flesh): he admits his belief is that “they” are all against them both, all making fun of Morghen and deserving of all they get. These flickers of humanity only serve to make his portrayal still more terrifying. The themes of Craven’s Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes are echoed here, as two different class units are pitted against each other, resulting in a climactic ironic twist resembling that of the former, as we realise the rape sequence at the very beginning has a direct connection to all the subsequent events. Reflecting the ambiguity of the cathartic acts of violence committed by normal people in the Craven movies, Deodato crafts the protagonists as wholly obnoxious and amoral themselves, genuinely seeming to get off on the carnage their revenge has created.
As memorable for its compelling and oddly toucing relationship between Hess and Morghen as it is for its still-uncomfortable assault scenes, House On The Edge Of The Park remains an intense and expertly made exploitation exercise. Hess may well have spent his whole career identified with the thugs he essayed here and in other movies of the period, but he inhabits the roles so credibly (and with relatively subtle nuances distinguishing Alex from Krug) it’s hard to carp. Surviving a handgun castration during his protracted demise at the end, he also displays perhaps the finest wide-mouthed reaction of the 1980’s. The film represents one of several confirmations of Deodato’s proficiency and versatility though the controversy yielded by this and, especially, Cannibal Holocaust, resulted in a switch to mostly tamer, action-oriented pictures and non-gory horror-thrillers like Dial Help and the splendidly off the cuff The Washing Machine.
“I was asked a million times if there was something homosexual between the characters played by me and David Hess. The question was asked in Glasgow, and we confessed we had been lovers ever since [House On The Edge of the Park] and were going to get married….” (John Morghen, 2015)
By Steven West
With special thanks to John Morghen (aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice) as interviewed by Peter ‘Witchfinder’ Hopkins